It’s a strange situation we find ourselves in. Here we are, the end of another game in Europe, having lost 1-0 against last year’s losing finalists. And we’re absolutely devastated because we could have, and really should have, won the game.
The 4-5-1 formation showed we were playing to contain, and for the draw, yet coming out the blocks so fast and starting the way we did was phenomenal. Chris Burke was having a field day on the wing, and within ten minutes, Wade Elliott’s run into the box was stopped by Ewerton and Blues were awarded a penalty that their hard work thus far really did deserve. And then Nikola Zigic stepped up; and my head went into my hands. He is a good player, he does have it in him, but I knew right there that he wouldn’t score because he is not a penalty taker. He doesn’t have a hard shot. And then the inevitable happened and it was back to square one, when we should have been celebrating. The pendulum just wouldn’t swing in the right direction for us. In fact, Ewerton not getting a second yellow after a challenge on Burke should have warned us about what was to come, and remind us that we aren’t blessed with a lot of luck.
From there on out we continued to play with the passion and belief that Chris Hughton has so admirably installed into a team which, at the start of the season, none of us expected to reap such great rewards. And then came the absolute sucker punch that neither us nor Braga deserved, and the deflection off Curtis Davies summed up our luck for the night. But, we were still attacking; Marlon King and Nathan Redmond were brought on to shore up the attack. Chris Wood was introduced later on but still we had no breakthrough, and as the clock ran down time eventually ran out. Chris Hughton’s side had lost for the first time away in Europe during this season’s campaign. And the most devastating news of the night, typically and ironically apt, came just before the final whistle: Maribor 3-4 Brugge after the home side being 3-0 up. It summed up the whole night. Our very unlucky night.
Yet, it sounds like I’m putting the blame on Maribor for losing. We ourselves should have done more; taken our chances, God knows we’ve rued enough missed chances in the past few games. We should have learnt. And now we have one game to qualify, and it’s out of our hands as we will be relying on not just our own result at home to Maribor, but we will be relying on Braga beating Brugge at the Jan Breydel Stadium. It seems like a lost cause, but lest we forget how we got here in the first place: a win against Villa almost a year to the day now; coming from 3-1 down against West Ham to win 4-3; scoring in the 89th minute at Wembley to beat Arsenal; beating C.D Nacional 3-0 in a two-legged qualifier; two away wins against first Maribor and then Brugge where a 99th minute winner sealed the three points. We’ve come a long way in the past year. We’ve been relegated, we’ve lost our manager, we’ve lost our players and our owner is in all sorts of trouble. But amongst all that we’ve won a trophy and we’re playing in Europe. If this is where it ends, in two weeks’ time against Maribor – then so be it. I’ve collected enough memories in the past year to last me a lifetime, but if we were to pull off the unthinkable and manage to qualify then I wouldn’t begrudge another European away day. And you know what? I wouldn’t put it past this team to be celebrating come full time on the 15th December, and I urge every single one of you to get down to St. Andrews for what could be a magical night of European football – and it could very well be our last.